Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Old-Style Fessi Gnawa Ritual at Riad Zany

This Friday The View from Fez is extending a public invitation to a rare Gnawa event in the Fez Medina. Old-style of Gnawa music is seldom heard these days and there are few people who understand and perform the rituals. Members of the public are welcome at Riad Zany (a donation will be requested) and the ceremony begins at 2pm and will probably run until 10pm. Mint tea will be served. As this is a courtyard performance it is recommended you dress warmly and bring a blanket! 

Gnawa musicians in Tangier - a different style than the music in Fez

Malem Aziz wuld Ba Blan is the sole remaining Gnawi here in Fez who exclusively performs the old local style of Gnawa music. The Gnawa use their music to repair relationships between people and saints or spirits. They move through a series of musical segments, each praising and welcoming a group of these spirits into the ritual space, inciting trance in adepts. The nature of these spirits is the subject of much headed debate, as practitioners and detractors locate them in local Islamic history or sub-Saharan devil worship, respectively. The possessing spirits, grouped and labeled by color, have preferences for specific incenses, songs, and even foods, making the event a sensory, and spiritual, journey through an evening.

While most Gnawa Laylas (nights) extend from the late night into early morning, Friday's event will be an Ashiya, an evening. This shorter ritual, from 2:00pm to somewhere around 10:00pm, is a condensed form of a ritual that used to last three days, even up to a week. We begin with the dakhla, an entrance that uses large drums (tbal) slung over the shoulders of the musicians. With candles and blessed foods, the group processes into the home, dancing and singing praise to the prophet Mohamed and other saints. Dance and entertainment prepares the ritual space and invites the spirits while recounting the Gnawa's history in slavery. We then enter the Shourfa', the segment dedicated to the descendants of the prophet, holy men of God who wear white when they re-animate their trancing adepts. At this point, the ritual has begun and we watch the group work with the various other spirits. Sidi Musa dances with a bowl of water balanced on his head, the forest spirits bless the foods of the woods and play with fire, Abraham may dance with prayer beads while reciting the Quran. The women, including Lalla Aisha, conclude the ceremony under the dark of night.

Two generations ago, this music began to change. Malems, Gnawa musicians who lead the ritual, from the medina, Fez Jdid, and near the palace in the Moulay Abd Allah neighborhood played this heavier style of Gnawa music until some youth began to notice new sounds coming from the Casablanca region. Aita, Moroccan popular music from that area, was taking hold across the country. High singing and faster rhythms were changing people's tastes, and the Gnawa were loathe to be left behind. Before long, and thanks to a few specific malems of that era, this pop music influence percolated through the allegedly unchanging Gnawa ritual. Malems began to tune their instruments a little bit higher, tightening the strings and stressing the upper ranges of their voices. Rhythms creeped into quicker tempi and dances became more acrobatic. Requests for popular songs gave malems reason to learn a wider variety of Moroccan music, finding unique ways in which to import diverse melodic ideas into the aural sensibility of their ritual.

The heavy, older Fessi style all but disappeared. While this happened only within the past few decades, the transformation has been nearly complete. A few individuals still remember a handful of the old versions of these songs, but the market for them has diminished. Malem Aziz finds work now as a specialist, catering to those who still desire the Gnawa ritual of the past. He rarely steps onto stages and, like malems of past generations, has other full time work. His family line is one of the respected chains in local Fessi Gnawa history.

Trancing to Gnawa

Friday's performance will be a complete ritual. My purpose is to create a recording for my own research on aesthetic changes in Gnawa music and interactions between this ritual, those of other brotherhoods, and popular culture. The event is open, and will be hosted by The View from Fez. Donations to defray the costs to the hosts will be accepted. Come, and strongly consider preparing to stay for the entire event. The length (7 or 8 hours) is part of the sensory experience, just as important as the colors, sights, smells, and tastes. The courtyard will cool down, especially in the evening hours, so bring a good coat or blanket to wrap up in. Even if you have seen Gnawa music previously, this open ritual will emphasize the spiritual and musical heaviness of the experience, as lived here, in Fez.

Text:  Chris Witulski

See our photo essay of the event here

Venue: Riad Zany, Laayoun (enter via Rcif)
Starting: 2pm
Ending 10pm
info: 067 27 65 657
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